BERLIN: A Kremlin threat to launch pre-emptive strikes on a planned NATO missile defence system in Europe is unjustified as the system poses no threat to Russia's security, the head of the Atlantic alliance said on Friday.
NATO has long insisted that the anti-missile shield it is developing is aimed at protecting member states from a possible Iranian attack, but Russia says it fears the system could undermine the effectiveness of its own nuclear arsenal.
In a stark warning head of Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency next week, Russia's military chief-of-staff said on Thursday that Moscow could carry out pre-emptive strikes on NATO missile defence installations.
"These statements are unjustified," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Berlin after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"Our missile defence system is not technically designed to threaten Russia in any way and we have provided that information to the Russians. Politically, we don't have any intention to attack Russia," he added.
NATO has invited Russia to cooperate on missile defence and they have shared defence interests, Rasmussen said, adding that NATO and Moscow had signed a pact 15 years ago pledging they would not use force against one another.
"The best way for the Russians to see with their own eyes that our system is not directed against them would be to cooperate actively," he said.
"We will continue our dialogue with Russia and I hope one day in the future we will reach an agreement."
General Nikolai Makarov, Russia's military chief of staff, told an international conference in Moscow on Thursday: "Decisions on the pre-emptive use of ... attack components will be taken in the period of heightening tension."
COOPERATION OR CONFRONTATION
Testy exchanges between the Russian hosts and U.S. and NATO officials at the conference exposed how far apart the old Cold War foes remain on the terms of a deal that would allow them to cooperate on missile defence, an arrangement both say they want.
The missile defence system is due to be completed in four phases by about 2020 and is to include interceptor missiles based in Poland and Romania.
President Dmitry Medvedev has warned previously that Russia could attack the sites if necessary, after first deploying new weapons in regions of Russia close by.
Moscow says the West will gain the ability to shoot down Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in about 2018, weakening Russia's nuclear deterrent.
Makarov said European states should decide whether protection against a possible future threat from nations such as Iran was worth the risk of facing down Russian weapons that would pose a "real threat" to countries hosting the facilities.
NATO will hold a summit in Chicago on May 20-21 at which the shield's first phase is to be declared up and running.
Russia said on Friday it was "ready for practical cooperation" on missile defence but urged NATO to change its plans and repeated its demand for legally binding guarantees the system is not aimed against it.
"We want to be heard," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said at a weekly briefing.
He said he hoped "the signals Makarov and other military leaders sent" would help "participants in the Chicago summit understand the seriousness of the situation and rework their thinking about the further development of this system."